diversity, humility, curiosity

I recently heard about a conversation in which someone invoked the idea of a “voodoo doll,” and another in which someone said that the Chinese character for crisis also means “opportunity.”

These phrases rest on falsehoods. Sticking needles into effigies to harm real enemies derives from Western European folklore. A widow was “accused, tried and drowned at London Bridge, England, for piercing a puppet, made in the victim’s likeness, with nails, towards the end of the 10th century” (Armitage 2015, p. 88). In white popular culture in the early 1900s, such practices were attributed to Haitian religion as part of a fearful, contemptuous, and hateful depiction of Haiti–the only country with a successful slave revolt–and of Black people in general.

John F. Kennedy popularized the idea that the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity. This is false and may perpetuate stereotypes of Asian “wisdom” as paradoxical, antique, and unscientific. A similar example is the remark attributed to Zhou Enlai that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution was a good thing. That sounds sagacious and mysterious until you find out that he was referring to the French uprisings of 1968, less than a decade before he spoke. It actually was too early to tell.

We shouldn’t say these things, because they are wrong and they reinforce harmful stereotypes. In fact, if anything is racist, it is to depict a religion constructed by enslaved and self-liberated people under immense duress as a malevolent form of magic, characterized by enchanted dolls and walking undead that are familiar tropes in European folklore.

Yet I do not think that the best outcome is to erect warning signs around such topics. We don’t want someone to use these phrases, get corrected, and resolve never to talk about Haiti or about Chinese characters again.

Instead, we should strive for a combination of humility (knowing what we don’t know) and curiosity (striving to learn more).

For instance, the family of syncretic religions that includes Vodou, Santeria, Candomble Jeje, and others is an important topic of study. These religions are components of our social world, interesting in their own right and significant in the history of the African diaspora. To understand a phenomenon like the astounding growth of Pentecostalism in Brazil, it might be important to have some awareness of Brazilian syncretism, which Pentecostals depict as their main enemy. Fear of Haiti and its successful revolution has been important in American politics–and that, too, is valuable to understand.

To study syncretism raises general issues that might have existential significance for people from other religious backgrounds. For instance, the question “What is a religion?” is pressing for all human beings. One answer is: a system of belief defined by certain abstract tenets that are matters of faith rather than reason and that are incompatible with other systems. That definition does not apply to Vodou or explain how someone can be both Catholic and syncretic, as many people are. So maybe we should rethink what a religion is, in general.

Likewise, it is worthwhile to understand more about Chinese writing. In addition to its intrinsic significance, this topic also raises questions that generalize to other contexts. For example, the word ji, misleadingly translated as “opportunity,” is polysemous: it has a whole family of loosely related meanings. Many English words are polysemous, too. What should we make of polysemy in general?

Also, the claim that the Chinese character for crisis means opportunity is an example–in this case, a spurious example–of arguing from etymology. People make etymological arguments all the time. I, for example, have noted that the roots of “citizen” and “political” are Latin and Greek words related to the city (civitas and polis). They share a history with the words “urbane” and “civilized,” which also distinguish cities from the inferior countryside. But do we get any guidance for today by understanding what ancient Greeks and Romans meant by these words? How, in general, should we think about original meanings, given that languages and societies change?

In short, let us turn mistakes into quests for more and better knowledge. That means encouraging further forays into fraught topics instead of warning people away from them. When we err, as we all do, we should respond by learning, not by apologizing and turning away. Incidentally, this means keeping the focus on the original topic of conversation (e.g., Haitian religion), not on our feelings about being corrected. I take the main problem with “white fragility” to be a tendency to distort conversations by directing attention to the question of how the white person feels.

My thesis is that cultural diversity requires humility plus curiosity. I would acknowledge two challenges to this thesis–not to discourage curiosity but to remind us what to be careful of.

First, by digging more deeply into fraught topics, we may make additional mistakes. I wrote above that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful revolt of enslaved people. Arguably, that is a false statement. In an earlier draft, I wrote that white people depicted Vodou as “black magic,” thereby repeating a racist trope in my own voice. It can be safer to erect warning signs around such issues than to compound our initial mistakes with more. I think we should take this risk but be appropriately careful about it. Humility should not diminish with added knowledge.

Second, knowledge confers power. To understand more about other peoples and cultures can allow you to profit from them or even dominate them. Often in durable cases of imperialism, the conquerors learned about, and even admired, the people whom they controlled.

For instance, I am not sure that Britain would have been motivated to dominate India, or capable of doing so, if some British people had not become learned and appreciative about India. A classic case is Rudyard Kipling. His first language was Hindi, he knew a lot about India, he disparaged racist stereotypes about Indians, and he believed that Britain should rule India just because it was a magnificent civilization. In stark contrast, Donald Trump displays ignorance and contempt for almost the whole world. One result is a reluctance to use US military power overseas. Trump has arguably been less imperialistic than his predecessors because he is more ignorant. This is a warning about curiosity.

Leaving aside literal imperialism, we might also worry about profiting from knowledge about other cultures. One could imagine a privileged American who starts with an idea about voodoo dolls, is corrected, learns more about Haitian syncretism, and makes money by writing about it or by importing and selling real Haitian art. Although I would defend cultural appropriation in many circumstances (and I disagree that profit is a mark of sin), one should at least be mindful about monetizing other people’s experiences.

These are caveats, but I don’t think they rebut the basic presumption that we should address ignorance by learning more–with curiosity born of humility and guided by ethics.

Source: Armitage, Natalie, “European and African Figural Ritual Magic: The Beginnings of the Voodoo Doll Myth,” in Armitage & Ceri Houlbrook, editors, The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, Oxbow Books, 2015, pp. 85–102.) See also: is everyone religious?; Kipling: understanding and control; what is cultural appropriation?; and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.